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The long-term benefits of the integration of art, EMDR, and sand tray therapies are significant for clients in the treatment of grief & loss or any other life events related to trauma.

As a therapist for the past 25 years, I have come to believe that all trauma is essentially a grief & loss issue. When anyone experiences trauma, regardless of age or gender, they have lost something meaningful in their lives. Something is lost, whether it is a sense of safety, emotional validation, peace of mind, or the knowledge of the characteristics of a healthy relationship as well as the meaning of true intimacy.

Personal growth and meaningful change require two essential traits.

The individual must truly and desperately desire to change and believe that they can change successfully. Each individual, regardless of the type of trauma they have endured, experiences it in their unique way. What may be traumatic to one may not be to another. They also experience and utilize what they learn in therapy, no matter which therapeutic modality they choose, in their way.

I have observed this, especially with EMDR therapy. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing is a powerful method of psychotherapy that utilizes bilateral eye movements with visual imagery that relieves many types of psychological and emotional distress. The method is highly efficient and effective for most clients. What may take up to two years to talk
therapy may only require one to eight one-hour sessions with EMDR.

Francine Shapiro, PhD, introduced EMDR. In 1989, according to her research (Shapiro 2014), “Upon termination of therapy, the EMDR group of the study continued to improve over time. At follow-up, 91% of the EMDR group no longer had any PTSD symptoms.”

In conjunction with the holistic style of therapy and the concepts in humanistic psychology, which advocated “unconditional positive regard” for the client, EMDR, art, and sand tray therapy are unique and complementary therapy styles.

Carl Rogers, a well-known psychologist who advocated humanistic psychology, stated in his famous quote: “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” Rogers encouraged unconditional positive regard by the therapist for every individual who seeks therapy and wants to live up to what he called their “ideal self.” They can efficiently move forward in therapy toward joy, peace of mind, and, ultimately, self-actualization.

Client Feedback

The recent reports I have received from clients who have engaged in the unique combination of EMDR, art, and sand tray therapy and this therapist’s unconditional positive regard seem to develop and continue to improve over time, as Francine Shapiro found in her study. Progress seems to occur quickly after the first EMDR processing session for most clients.

There are also exceptions based on a variety of variables. Once the client experiences the initial EMDR processing session, the psyche, as Freud called it, seems to know what hurts the most, what direction to go, what problems or issues are
crucial for resolution, and what specific experiences have been repressed or buried.

Clients are reassured that engaging in this unique combination of modalities often requires them to take the risk of addressing past trauma and the courage to face the truth no matter how severe.

It is not an easy task, but as Carl Rogers stated (1959), “A person with high self-worth has confidence and positive feelings about him or herself and can face challenges. They can accept failure and unhappiness at times and are open and honest with others.” The expression “step up to the plate” can be applied here just as well as in baseball. Rogers also said, “ The process of the good life is not, I am convinced, for the faint-hearted. It involves the stretching and growing of becoming more and more of one’s potentialities. It involves the courage to be. It means launching oneself fully into the stream of life.”

In the interpretation of art therapy, as well as in sand tray therapy, there are recurring indicators that are based on probability and statistics.

An example would be when a client draws a sun in the upper right quadrant of the page, which is
considered the spiritual future; it may but not always indicate an interest in spirituality. The upper left quadrant of the page is considered the spiritual past. Whenever a client draws a sun in this position, it may indicate the desire for a better relationship with one’s biological father.

There is no moral evaluation attached. These indicators are based on thousands of samples in art therapy research and often provide a window for the client to embark on the dangerous and often frightening areas of one’s inner repressed experiences and trauma.

Sand Tray Therapy

Sand tray is very similar to art therapy but in a 3-D format. The quadrants are the same, and the variety of small toys offered often represent what the famous psychologist Carl Jung (1953) called the “archetypes of the collective unconscious.” The hero in stories is one example of an archetype and a villain.

Clients are asked to review a collection of small toys to create a scene and place them in a sandbox on a stand about waist-high. The bottom is painted blue to encourage the creation of lakes,
streams, or the ocean. When the client feels that the scene is completed, they are asked to make up a story about the scene.

As in another well-known art therapy task called the “8 Frame Squiggle Drawing, (Steinhardt 2006), unintended relationships appear during the story-making with the 8 titles like a message from the unconscious that gives the images a verbal shape.” The objects placed in the sand tray are similar to the titles in the 8-Frame Squiggle Drawing. The action in the story often mirrors closely what issues the client is currently struggling with in their life.

If the therapist can create a sense of trust and safety through sincerity, genuineness, and transparency, the individual will start to make changes in their self-image, which will become more psychologically integrated, creative, and effective, as well as
emotionally mature and resilient. Over time, clients engaged in this combination of modalities have recently begun reporting the personal and psychological benefits. Most clients have been in therapy with this counselor for six months up to four years.

These benefits and changes approved by clients include but may not be limited to the following:

1.) Improved self-esteem, self-image, and self-confidence
2.) Identification and motivation to change towards the “ideal self”
3.) Improved personal boundaries with less co-dependence or enabling in personal
relationships
4.) Strengthened assertiveness
5.) Effective and efficient resolution of trauma and grief & loss
6.) Healthier relationships
7.) Peace of mind, happiness, and the willingness and ability for true intimacy

As a therapist, my genuine and sincere hope is to assist all those I come in contact with
Those in distress and suffering can move forward with confidence, perseverance, self-control, and optimism to their ideal self through the unique combination of EMDR, art therapy, sand tray therapy, and unconditional positive regard.

Deborah Kiser, M.Ed., ART-BC, LPC, is a therapist here at Airmid Wellness. Learn More about Deb.